Participant Observation

The main method of ethnography is participant observation; this is joining in with activities in the field and making mental, then written, theoretically informed, observations. Ethnographers also use in-depth interviews and conversations, sharing photographs, walking together, looking at documents like diaries, and even methods such as collecting statistics. Nevertheless, ethnography has a common methodology (a theory about how research should be done) that believes the best way to learn about people’s lives is by first-hand experience. So, joining in, being there, and experiencing life as it is lived are central to ethnography.

Getting in

One of the first things an ethnographer has to do is to gain access to the group or community or lifestyle. He or she may already be an insider, or may need to negotiate becoming one. Becoming accepted can be slow and difficult, and an ethnographer may start off feeling rather silly, or shy, or lonely. But, with time, people usually come to accept you as long as you show an interest in them and their lives, and are not too forceful, opinionated, or hurried. The best approach is to let them know you are there to learn about their lives and to tell their stories in a way they would like them to be told. The time may come when you wish to write something they do not agree with, but that is something you will then need to deal with, probably by giving them anonymity or by explaining that you see things differently to them because you are taking a different (broader and scientific) perspective

What to do

A participant observer is always there to participate but also to observe, to notice things, to record them, and to try to make sense of what people are saying and doing. This involves an element of standing back intellectually and reflecting on things, writing them down and thus objectifying them, asking directed questions in order to address research questions, and seeking access to groups and situations that another participant might not access. It is therefore quite active, rather than passive, and is driven by what it is the ethnographer wishes to learn about. It will involve writing notes. Usually these are mental notes that are first written down sketchily and then written up more fully when there is more time. It is important to keep as full a record as possible of observations as well as thoughts and reflections about what is being learned in the field.

Building friendships

Ethnographers get very close to the people they are learning about (or indeed learning with). They join people in their homes, go to parties and events with them, share their birthdays perhaps, and listen to their deepest thoughts and feelings. It is important to develop a rapport with the individuals in the field. This enables people to talk more freely and openly. But that sounds rather manipulative, and ethnographers must be careful that they are not exploiting people’s friendships or trust. However, building good rapport can also be an ethical way of doing research. Ethnography takes time and shows commitment to a group; ethnographers listen carefully and give a voice to those who often are not heard. Ethnography is also good at understanding how power and exploitation are perpetuated in people’s daily lives. Rather than enforcing the researcher’s opinion on the field, an ethnographer learns from the field (group, setting, people, lifestyle).

1 thought on “Participant Observation

  1. Pingback: Types of Ethnography – Savannah Meacham

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